The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are colleges coddling students or just leveling the playing field?

Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. (Meg Buscema/GSU)

Do colleges coddle their students too much?

That was the question I posed in my column last week. I suggested that the obsession colleges have with data-mining software to steer students toward specific majors and certain courses where they’re more likely to succeed is producing a generation of risk-averse graduates.

But several readers reminded me that not every student is raised by helicopter parents helping them each step of the way to college. And few students are lucky enough to attend elite institutions where they are surrounded by a bevy of professors and advisers ready to step in if something goes wrong.

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Indeed, much of the growth in higher education enrollment in recent years has been among students who are the first in their families to go to college. Some of them get derailed before they even make it to campus by a lack of financial aid, while many others drop out before they earn a degree.

Who makes it to the finish line is almost entirely tied to family income. Children from families who earn more than $90,000 have a 1 in 2 chance of getting a bachelor’s degree by age 24. That falls to a 1 in 17 chance for those from families earning less than $35,000.

So much for the meritocracy of American higher education.

That is why what has happened at Georgia State University during the past decade is so unusual. In 2003, the university graduated just 32 percent of its students within six years. The numbers were even worse for low-income, black, and Hispanic students.

Today, the university graduates 55 percent of its students (that’s about the national average for all four-year colleges). What’s more, during the past four years, Georgia State has awarded more bachelor’s degrees to black students than any other college or university in the country. And its graduation rates of low-income students now equal those of wealthier students.

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What changed in the space of a decade? The Atlanta institution adopted data analytics to improve both its advising for students and how it awarded financial aid.

The university’s web-based advising system now draws from a database of 2.5 million grades of Georgia State students from the past 10 years to show undergraduates the classes and majors they’re most likely to succeed in, based on their grades in previous courses. The system allows students to track their progress and alerts officials to courses students are failing at high rates or taking in the wrong sequence.

The tool also includes Major Matcher, which reviews a student’s course grades and, using historical Georgia State data, suggests majors in which the student is most likely to succeed. Since that system was put in place, the university’s fastest growing majors are biology and computer science, historically majors with high dropout rates.

“They were left to sink or swim on their own,” Timothy M. Renick, Georgia State’s vice provost, told me. “Now, we are more systematically giving students a fighting chance to succeed in these majors by offering entering diagnostics and early interventions,” such as tutoring.

One byproduct of the computerized advising system is that students take fewer “wasted credits,” or courses that ultimately don’t count toward their degree. In the past two years, the average Georgia Sate student has collected five fewer extra credits, a savings of $10 million in tuition and fees across all students at the university.

That’s a significant savings at a university where one-third of students come from families making less than $30,000. One reason so many students at Georgia State don’t make it to commencement is that they can’t cobble together the dollars needed to fill the gap between their tuition bill and what they receive in aid.

In some cases they might only need to come up with a few hundred dollars. Once again Georgia State mines its data, this time looking for students who owe small amounts of money, are close to graduation, and have good grades. In recent years, those students have received small grants — averaging less than $1,000 — to be sure they remain enrolled in school and graduate.

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I asked Renick if the university’s widespread use of data to nudge and direct students means they’ll be less prepared to face the realities of the working world after graduation. Not at all, he said, because most of his students already face those realities in their lives now.

“The levels of maturity and independence needed to graduate as low-income students from universities such as Georgia State — juggling jobs, families, and studies and, in the majority of cases, doing so while managing thousands of dollars in unmet need — far exceed those of the middle- and upper-class college students of past generations,” Renick told me.

For low-income and first-generation students, big data is an analogue to the support network that most middle- and upper-income students take for granted. When used as a nudge instead of an edict for students, data analytics holds the promise of leveling the playing field between the haves and have-nots in American higher education.